The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an Ending concerns Tony Webster, retired, divorced, father of one, grandfather of two. It also concerns his school friend Adrian Finn, who died by suicide aged twenty-two. And his first girlfriend Veronica, her mum, his school friends Colin and Alex, and the ways they are connected through the past they shared.

This is a story about the paradoxes of existence – how time speeds up and slows down, the infinite potential for misunderstanding, the knowledge that even if you could have lived your life differently you would always have made the same choices because you are who you are in the moment you make the choice.

Tony looks back over his youth, reflecting on the way memory isn’t always reliable and is often a version of the facts compiled and structured to make ourselves feel better. He regularly acknowledges that the way he sees things isn’t necessarily the way the other people party to events in his life see them. Towards the end of the book, he sums it up in a paragraph about how we write or curate our personal story throughout our lives.

How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but – mainly – to ourselves.

Tony is part of a small group of friends at the boys’ school he attends. He, Alex and Colin don’t think they need anyone else until clever, arch, philosophical Adrian joins the school and they conspire to absorb him into their clique. Adrian is different. He goes along with the idea that he is part of the gang while never truly committing to it. He’s the sort of person others obsess over because he is so unknowable.

I liked Tony’s apparent candour in his reminiscing. He defines himself as peaceable, muddling through, trying to get a grip on the world and his place in it, and all the way true to himself, as far as his self-awareness allows him to be. His lack of curiosity in other people, the way he takes them at face value, never digging deeper into their now or their then, interested me. It’s a mix of not needing to know more than what is in front of him and not knowing that he does need to know the more than until someone else poses a question and elicits an illuminating nugget.

This inherent lack of curiosity and consequent lack of awareness means that Tony often misses cues. His relationship with Veronica he portrays as largely passive, with Tony accepting the status quo despite somewhere within himself wanting something different. Her mother, during the sole weekend he spends at Veronica’s family home, warns him not to take any of her daughter’s nonsense. He doesn’t know what to do with this information. The relationship ends after a year because Veronica is tired of how passive Tony is, how he doesn’t pick up on things. She quickly moves on, causing a fracture in the dynamic of Tony’s friendships with Alex, Adrian and Colin.

Late in the book it is made apparent to Tony that his version of their relationship is not the full picture, that there are things about it that he has hidden from himself, and some of the hidden stuff is documented in a way that casts him in a different light. When we behave badly, influenced by pain or insecurity, it is difficult to acknowledge that we have been less than we hoped for ourselves, that our behaviour has in turn caused pain and insecurity. Faced with written evidence of his younger self, Tony reflects on the certitude of youth and how sense of purpose and idealism falls away the older a person gets.

When you are in your twenties, even if you’re confused and uncertain about your aims and purposes, you have a strong sense of what life itself is, and of what you in life are, and might become. Later … later there is more uncertainty, more overlapping, more backtracking …

A few of the novellas I read during November had that tension between youth and age at their centre. It’s something that I think about often, as someone without children of my own but who has nephews and nieces and interacts with people in their late teens and early twenties through work. It fascinates me how those of my friends who are parents of teenagers forget what it was like to be young and idealistic. Perhaps the need to be the responsible adult means those memories have to be squashed down, and the story of your life is written as though you never behaved like that. Whereas I have less reason to fully grow up, mortgage and bill payment aside.

In the final pages of the book, Veronica shows something to Tony, something about the life she has had during the forty years they no longer knew each other. Tony is frustratingly ignorant about it, his continued lack of curiosity and inability to wonder why Veronica might have shown him what she does making me want to shake him. I completely understood why Veronica was exasperated by his reaction. Her refrain is, “You just don’t get it … You never did, and you never will.”

There’s a clue in a photocopied page from a diary bequeathed to Tony but lost to him that he fails to understand until the last page. Even then, he chooses which memory to recall, leaving uncertainty around the truth. One truth is that Veronica’s behaviour can be explained by the relationship she must have had with her mother. Another is that when a person betrays another, it’s easy to reconfigure memory to tell a story about yourself that puts the other in the wrong.

This is the eighth book I’ve read by Julian Barnes. I started in my late teens with Talking It Over, a book borrowed from my older sister, which has similar themes of two men having a relationship with the same woman, insecurity, how to navigate friendship and love, and what the point of life is. Talking It Over has a big difference, though, in that each person gets their turn to tell their side of the story. In The Sense of an Ending we only get Tony’s perspective. Despite this, it seems richer in narrative and content. Mind you, it’s more than 30 years since I read Talking It Over. I’m a different person, with more life under my belt. Perhaps that is what makes The Sense of an Ending seem the better book now.

It’s only slim, less than 180 pages, but the pace of it and the ideas it contains encouraged me to take my time reading and to allow myself pondering time.

Read 28/11/2022-02/12/2022

Rating 5 stars

A free floating read for Novellas in November, started at the tail end of Contemporary Novellas week.


5 thoughts on “The Sense of an Ending

  1. I’ve not read any Barnes but on the basis of what you say about this here I may remedy that soon, especially as this is relatively short. Thanks, Jan, for introducing it as part of the novella-fest we had recently!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I feel confident that you will enjoy this one, Chris. I was talking with my husband this morning about what we each like about Barnes. Like Ishiguro, for me he is a quiet writer who says important things, developing his narratives gradually. My husband is more visual than me and likened the way Barnes starts his novels to a watercolour artist layering on shades to build up the full picture.

      Liked by 1 person

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